January 22, 2019

Embracing the Broken in Our Communities

The one thing I surely know about myself and the Jews that I serve is that we are Americans.  Yes, we love baseball, apple pie, and Hollywood.  We have unequivocally benefited from all of the rights and security that America has granted, and we appreciate them.  And, in a way, every time a survey or poll about Jews in America comes out, we seem to learn much more about ourselves as Americans in this moment rather than what it particularly means to be a Jew.

With all of the monumental benefits we Jews have gained living in America as Americans, however, we have also embodied the same sociological dysfunctions manifested in America.  We demonstrate right and left wing political divisiveness; we can be materialistic in particularly American ways; and we are terribly unilingual. 

We also struggle in American culture with a psychosocial complex often only associated with individuals: perfectionism.  Perfectionism understood here is not striving for excellence, it is striving for approval.  That is, many of us treat our lives and personal identities like we do our Facebook page – ever-minding the “Likes” we get on our status updates.  Perfectionism here is about equating what we accomplish and how well we accomplish it with who we are as human beings. 

In the end, perfectionism is a front and a hustle, and it leads many of us into the tragic depths of validating our own self-worth by external accomplishments alone.  Of course, synagogue communities are not immune to this.  The famous “Jewish geography” conversation, for example, inevitably leads to a subtext of discussing whose kids are doctors and lawyers, and which Ivy League schools our kids attend.  Even us rabbis, when talking about our synagogues and work, can devolve into “whose shul is bigger” or “which celebrity spoke at our place” or “how many people showed up to my program.” 

This kind of perfectionism is not the key to success.  In fact, living life, either individually or communally, guided by perfectionism diminishes achievement and success.  It correlates to depressiveness, anxiety, paralysis, and addiction. Perfectionism is common in America today and, therefore, common amongst Jews. 

Worst of all, this manifestation of perfectionism, characterized by a smug marketability, is often the basis for alienating those who do not fit in to the “perfect” narrative.  Such unfortunates may not be explicitly outcast, but they will experience prejudice, judgment, and denial to otherwise available social access.  The past has shown many alienated for not meeting the standards of the hour, including women, people of color, gays and lesbians, people with special needs, the aging, and so on.

The problem today is that while we have a tendency toward superficial perfectionism, a simultaneous trend toward the value of transparency and vulnerability is mounting in spiritual and self-help circles.  Perhaps it is a backlash against the stress and anxiety created by perfectionism or perhaps it is altogether separate, but reclaiming emotional vulnerability and living transparently is on the upswing.  In these communities of courage, people share that they are not perfect and that they are profoundly relieved to not be alone in their imperfection.  They share their real-life struggles, failures, and feelings of isolation: divorce, job loss, insecurity, depression, heartbreak, and addiction.  They tell of how when they experienced crisis or loss they may have lied about their problems. They may have even acted out on account of it and, though the moment has passed, they still feel a tear in their hearts. They speak of their brokenness.

At Beit T’Shuvah, I counsel and teach those who are acutely broken from addiction, including drugs, alcohol, gambling, and gaming.  Most of my clients and their families are Jews, but many of them feel disenfranchised from their Jewish communities.  Some have gone to Jewish day schools and are from families that founded their local synagogues, while others rarely have set foot in one.  Some grew up as good kids who lost their way and some have been in and out of jail since adolescence.  All of them are seeking.  All of them yearn for community and belonging.  All of them believe Judaism is something to respect and learn from.  All of them can be redeemed and make teshuvah.

I have come to increasingly understand with age and experience – as we do with all lessons – that life is much harder and more complicated than we often admit.  I have come to know that there is an ongoing human drama that each of us experience.  There is the enthusiasm of youth, the disappointments of age, the surprises of joy, and the ravages of loss.  I have also come to see the Torah as a matter of fact exposition of the human experience through the stories of our ancestors, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel, and Leah. The Torah unabashedly portrays real human beings with real heartbreak and struggle, and, therefore, it is given to us to remind us that if our ancestors could endure despite their troubles, so can we.  The following Hasidic teaching, often attributed to the Kotzker Rebbe, may say it best:

A disciple asks the rebbe: “Why does the Torah tell us to ‘place these words upon your hearts’ (Deut. 11:18)?  Why does it not tell us to place these holy words in our hearts?”  The rebbe answers: “It is because as we are, our hearts are closed, and we cannot place the holy words in our hearts.  So we place them on top of our hearts.  And there they stay until one day, the heart breaks and the words fall in.”

This month, I, along with my Beit T’Shuvah colleague, Doug Rosen, will be presenting at the biennial conference for United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism.  We are calling one of our workshops, “Embracing the Broken in Our Kehillot (Communities).”  Our fundamental goal is to make the case that the pseudo-ideal of perfectionism is unsustainable in our Jewish communities, if they are to remain relevant communities.  We travel around the country speaking on behalf of Beit T’Shuvah’s philosophy of addiction, which is that using, drinking, and gambling are not the problem, but rather that they are the symptoms of a deeper spiritual brokenness inherent to the human experience.  This brokenness is something that we all, sooner or later, undergo and in various degrees.  We have seen hundreds and even thousands of Jews find a Jewish community at Beit T’Shuvah simply because it has allowed them to be transparent about their own brokenness – their own stories. 

As the 21st century seems to pile more stress and the status quo American value of brand perfectionism upon our families, we have seen rising rates of depression, anxiety, sleep deprivation, and rampant addiction, whether to substances, processes (e.g., food, sex, gambling, gaming, social media), or relationships (codependency).  Just like with individuals, our Jewish communities must also be able to endure brokenness.  We can no longer render psychological, emotional, or spiritual problems to non-Jews alone – they are American problems and, therefore our own.  As Father Greg Boyle, founder of Homeboy Industries, said at a Beit T’Shuvah event, “Unless we welcome our own brokenness, we will have a tendency to despise the broken.”  Thankfully, we have our Torah and our spiritual tradition to help guides us, turning our hearts, as well as all others toward healing and redemption.

Rabbi Paul Steinberg is an educator and spiritual counselor at Beit T’Shuvah in Los Angeles, a residential addiction treatment center and synagogue community. Formerly a day school director and synagogue rabbi, his most recent book is Recovery, the 12 Steps, and Jewish Spirituality: Reclaiming Hope, Courage, and Wholeness (Jewish Lights, 2014), which provides the first comprehensive approach to integrating Jewish spirituality with the principles of Alcoholics Anonymous.